By Vinura Gamage 

With countries attempting to bolster their economic growth through international trade, the implications of trade on fundamental human rights are evident. While at first glance, one may assume that global willingness to take part in trade among nations would result in economic growth and contribute to the protection of human rights, the reality regarding the relationship between these two concepts is filled with complexities which have both positive and negative implications on the wellbeing of the global community. This article will offer an overview of how human rights have been affected within international trade and how they can be addressed.  

Seven Instances Human Rights Came to the Forefront in the Context of International Trade 

In theory, human rights and trade need to be complementary as trade is meant to increase a person’s right to development in an inclusive and sustainable way. Whether this occurs in practice worldwide is doubtful. A person may assess the relationship between human rights and international trade in multiple ways. This article attempts to identify their complex relationship through a case study-based approach which considers the effects of recent global trade events on human rights.  

Case Study 1: Fair Trade Certification 

The Fair-Trade Movement ensures production under fair and just labour conditions. This includes ensuring apt wages, safe working conditions along with the prohibition of forced and child labour. Such initiatives add another facet to international trade, creating communities of responsible consumers. Thus, stakeholders must be concerned about responsible production as well as responsible consumption during trade activities. 

Case Study 2: The Collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory 2013 

Despite discovering large structural cracks within the Rana Plaza Factory, several garment industries within Bangladesh continued daily production, ignoring safety concerns. This resulted in the tragic death of 1,113 garment workers and injured many more as the eight-story building collapsed. Bangladesh is home to one of the largest contributors to the global garment industry and the pressure of being a competitive force within the global garment supply chain meant that workers were not looked after, creating unsafe working conditions, inadequate building regulations and insufficient labour protection policies within the country.  

Case Study 3: Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition 

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is a direct response to the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse that aimed to address the inefficiencies in the garment industry in terms of protecting labour rights and ensuring labour safety. The accord is a legally binding agreement among trade unions and brands which highlights on the necessity to create a Bangladeshi garment and textile industry which is safe and healthy. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is another organization which has joined hands with a multitude of international brands and retailers to ensure transparency within the global apparel supply chain. 

Case Study 4: Mining Cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 

Around 75% of the world’s cobalt is supplied from mining done within the DRC. As the world moves towards electrification, there has been a surge in the demand for cobalt which is an essential component for rechargeable batteries. The mining of Cobalt within the DRC has heightened poor working conditions, exploitation of labour and the use of child labour. This is a specifically complicated issue that has perhaps been neglected by the global supply chains. While states along with multinational corporations aim to move towards a greener future with less dependence on non-renewable energy sources, the resources required for such initiatives are obtained through markets which use labour methods that do not comply with the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. This creates complexities within the two aspects of human rights and international trade, where international organisations and states seem to fuel their green initiatives with cobalt mined by children and exploited labour.  

Case Study 5: Qatar’s rapid Construction for the FIFA world cup 2022 

The 2022 FIFA World Cup generated over $7 billion for multiple international stakeholders. While it was evident that tremendous infrastructure development took place within the host nation of Qatar to facilitate this tournament, the methods in which this development was achieved raises questions about the state’s commitment towards upholding labour rights. “Migrant workers were indispensable to making the World Cup 2022 possible, but it has come at great cost for many migrant workers and their families who not only made personal sacrifices, but also faced widespread wage theft, injuries, and thousands of unexplained deaths,” said Rothna Begum senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. This shows that regardless of international commitment towards the protection of human rights and labour rights, global bodies have taken part in trade activities which have violated labour rights for increased trade opportunities.  

Case Study 6: Kenya’s Agricultural Exports 

Heightened demand of European markets towards agricultural exports of Kenya have positively impacted the nation’s population reducing poverty while increasing employment and income for small-scale farmers. More than 40% of the total population and over 70% of the rural population of Kenya is employed within the agricultural sector. The sector contributes to over 60% of the nation’s export income which continues to improve due to increased global demand, facilitating in poverty alleviation within rural Kenyan regions.  

Case Study 7: Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) 

Unsustainable methods of producing palm oil have yielded negative consequences to the environment and the working conditions of farmers. Deforestation, loss of wildlife and poor living standards of workers are common characteristics within irresponsible palm oil production. However, the establishment of the RSPO as a multi-stakeholder initiative has helped encourage sustainable palm oil production within states. Setting standards for indigenous land rights, workers’ rights, and environmental protection, the RSPO plays a vital role in aiding states to make national commitments towards sustainable production of palm oil.  

The Positives and the Negatives of International Trade on Human Rights at a Glance 

Considering the above case studies the positive implications of international trade on human rights are,  

  • Facilitating economic growth of developing economies, thereby expanding their markets beyond regional boundaries. 
  • Creation of employment opportunities. 
  • Increased access to imported raw materials. 
  • Enhanced access to goods and services 
  • Promotion of sustainable means of production 

Negative implications of international trade on human rights, 

  • Labour Rights Violations. 
  • Poor pay. 
  • Poor working conditions. 
  • Environmental consequences of rapid development facilitated by international trade. 
  • The use of unsustainable production practices with excessive resource extraction and waste generation. 

Addressing the Challenges 

It is vital for states to consider a human rights approach towards international trade. Communities will be better off placing human well-being at the heart of economic policies which would lead to ensuring equitable distribution of benefits among the stakeholders of international trade. Following a human rights approach would also guarantee sustainable development within states which would be vital for its economic and social growth.  

The integration of human rights into trade agreements and policies would bring positives towards the global community. Enhancing labour and environmental standards would create better standards of living for the labour force, ensuring proper access to essential services.  

Governments should encourage public participation in formulating such policies with the participation of civil societies which would bolster accountability of the governing bodies in policy formulation. From a business standpoint, the responsibility of multinational corporations in promoting ethical business practices and corporate social responsibility programs are vital to ensure the protection of human rights within trade.  

The Need for All International and Local Actors to Work Together 

The interconnectedness of human rights and international trade contributes to the creation of a complicated relationship between the two concepts. It is vital for states and global stakeholders to understand these two concepts to formulate economic policies to improve international trade while ensuring the protection of human rights. The case studies relating to Bangladesh portrayed the tragic fate endured by the garment labour force due to poor work conditions, an aspect which global stakeholders can prevent by taking sustainable measures that ensure employees are safeguarded and protected. Meanwhile, cobalt mining in the DRC and the rapid infrastructure development of Qatar both displayed the negative impact of international trade on the protection of human rights of marginalised communities. The positive implications of international trade on human rights are delineated through the agricultural export growth of Kenya and the formulation of the RSPO. Thus, by comprehensively understanding both favourable and unfavourable implications of the correlation between human rights and international trade, it is vital that states take an active human rights-based approach to develop new international trade policies with the aim of maximising economic growth while prioritising human well-being.  

The views and opinions expressed in articles submitted to the Comparative Advantage Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Moot Court Bench. 



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